Maintain The Magic of Christmas: Making the Most of the Holidays with your Memory-Impaired Loved One

When most of us hear the word “Christmas,” we are flooded with memories and fond recollections of past holidays spent feasting and feting with those we love most. These memories of holiday traditions make us anticipate the moment we can do it all over again.

But what if you had no recollection of Grandma’s famous sweet potatoes, or you couldn’t recall why everyone gathered at the fireplace for the yearly Christmas blessing? Without the ability to recall the memories that come to mean so much to us, the holidays can feel confusing and stressful.

This situation can potentially challenge or overwhelm many individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia and their families during the hectic holiday season . With sensitivity to the affected senior’s needs and appropriate adjustments, the whole family can relax and enjoy those classic holiday traditions. We’ve compiled some tips for ensuring a smooth, stress-free holiday for everyone involved:

(1) Keep in mind that the heart remembers what the mind does not. Your memory-impaired mom might not remember her favorite Christmas song, but you better believe that her toes will start tapping when you play it; she may even sing and dance along! Your uncle might not remember that coconut cake is his favorite holiday dessert, but that doesn’t mean he won’t enjoy every last bite of it. Underneath the memory loss and its many symptoms, your loved one is still the exact same person with the same feelings and preferences. Carefully consider the individual’s favorite holiday traditions and make a point to include those things in your celebration. Bringing your loved one’s most cherished memories to the table will ignite a physical response that goes deeper than what the mind recalls, creating the most enjoyable atmosphere possible.

(2) Understand and respect your loved one’s limitations. When one loses their memory, they come to rely heavily on their daily routine. Holiday celebrations interrupt the regularity of a practiced routine, and the excitement, crowd, or elevated noise can be potentially stressful. When planning to host a holiday celebration that includes your loved one, consider these factors and plan accordingly. If you usually celebrate the holidays with a large extended family, consider hosting a more intimate get together including family members with whom your loved one is familiar.  Providing a quiet getaway space where your loved one can relax will better allow him or her enjoy the gathering. Take your loved one’s regular routine into account as much as possible while planning, and take care to make only minor deviations. Help your family member get adequate rest and hydration, avoid over-stimulation, and provide plenty of quiet time. The closer your family is able to stick to their usual routine, the more relaxed and open to celebrating they will be.

(3) Keep the mood light & festive. Focus on creating small ways for your loved one to feel like an active participant in seasonal traditions. For instance, involve them in wrapping Christmas presents by having them apply the tape, or designate them as “Santa” when gifts are being distributed- these small but important contributions will keep your loved one engaged in a positive way. Guests with whom your loved one butts heads, or young children who may not understand why their grandparents are “acting funny”, can unknowingly say or do things that may agitate your loved one. Your foresight into situations like these can help you adequately prepare your guests to interact with your loved one in a way that is constructive to their experience.

(4) HAVE FUN! The holidays are a precious time which you can create more cherished holiday memories for you and your family to carry with you long after that person is gone. Certainly, planning a celebration involves logistics and roadblocks, but managing your loved one’s memory care needs can be easier considering the tips we’ve provided. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself as a caregiver- if preparing a holiday meal while trying to manage your loved one’s experience is making you feel overstressed, have dinner catered, or make this year’s celebration a potluck feast. Leave the worries about holiday décor and perfect gifts behind, and instead prioritize spending quality time with your loved one, reminiscing and getting reacquainted with who they are today. The day shouldn’t just be special for them- it should also be special for YOU!